Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Musings: Day 1

- April 14, 2012

Part one of a three part series; read part two, part three.

Day one of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival -- a three-day music gathering held on some 80 acres of lush green polo fields in Indo, California – opened with a surprise. Bad weather.

Normally, temperatures above 100 degrees are commonplace, a perfect climate for men and women alike to display their carefully selected fashion statements, and even more bare skin. The wind, sporadic rain and cool temperatures changed all of this, Friday, forcing many attendees to begrudgingly cover up their day-one fashion statements with festival-bought hoodies and ponchos.

But for me, Coachella is about the music. Day one featured more than 50 acts across five main stages. (Here are the bands that performed on Friday, followed by the best, worst and some ruminations: The Black Keys, Swedish House Mafia, Pulp, Refused, Arctic Monkeys, Mazzy Star, Afrojack, Explosions in the Sky, M83, Amon Tobin, Cat Power, Madness, Jimmy Cliff & Tim Armstrong, GIRLS, The Rapture, Madeon, M. Ward, The Horrors, Frank Ocean, Horrors, James Alesso, Sebastien, Yuck, Neon Indian, Dawes, Black Angels, Deathgrips, Wu Lyf, Breakbot, Atari Teenage Riot, Feed Me, Givers, Other Lives, Band of Skulls, R3hab, Wolfgang, Midnight Beast, EMA, Ximena Sarinana, Kendrick Lamar, The Dear Hunter, Honeyhoney, Hello Seahorse!, Sheepdogs, LA Riots.)

One of the five festival tents, the Sahara, hosts nothing but DJs and electronic artists. It's where “the kids” go to act out incorrigible acts of youth and awkward sexual energy. Minute for minute, it's also the most entertaining tent at the entire festival. Without a band of gyrating guitar players to entertain the audiences, Friday's DJs turned to frenetic mixes and stunning light shows. France's SebastiAn's decidedly nationalistic show evoked the electro house sounds of Justice and Modeselektor. Dutch producer and DJ Afrojack did not disappoint, either.

Up and coming hip hop West Coast Kendrick Lamar performed the main stage to a modest crowd. It's hard for hip hop to translate well live on big stages without a backing band.

Mexico's Ximena Sarinana performed a refreshing blend of electronica, folk and pop. Although her vocal left me wanting, it was nice to see so many Mexican flags in the audience.

Gary Clark Jr. sounds more like the Black Keys than the Black Keys, which means every song didn't sound like a car commercial.

Jimmy Cliff, backed by the masterful Tim Armstrong band, attempted to bring a little sunsplash to the festival. He played many of his greats, “The Bigger They Come” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” but admittedly, listening the 60-something Cliff sing “It's gonna be a bright sunshiny day” while being pelted by dust and rain was a bit much.

Arctic Monkeys showed that they deserve top billing. The rockers music is wonderfully loud and arranged and I'm willing to bet that despite their success, they still beat up mods on the weekends. Extra points for lead singer Alex Turner coming into the beer gardens to hang out with the normals, even if Misha Barton was towing him around by the hand like a puppy.

Pulp followed with all of their melodrama, avant-rock theatrics and...well, I left this show pretty early to catch Frank Ocean, a rising R&B sensation, with a great new video. I was glad to see him perform, not because he was great, but because he had a fake band. You know, a drummer, guitarist, bass player, but he still sings mostly to prearranged beats. Ocean had a near meltdown on stage when the band kept miscuing the backing tracks, eventually berating the techs and telling thousands of spectators, “Here I am trying to be all professional and shit!” Touche.

Brooklyn's Neon Indian and its densely layered electro-pop was a highlight of the day. The band's music, evocative of Tears for Fears and the like, doesn't translate as well on their albums as it did on the Outdoor Stage.

Mazzy Star was fun for about two songs, but admittedly, this shoegazing music wasn't my scene during the 80s and 90s. I was impressed though, by how lightly the guitarists seemed to strum the guitars and still get sound, much less distortion!

Explosions in the Sky are amazing. I've seen them many times, so I missed this set in order to watch M83. The electronic band seamlessly blends pop sensibility, live performance and electronic pulse.

I was pleasantly surprised by Refused, a Swedish metal band reuniting after 14 years that evoked the revolution metal-rock-rap hybrid of late 90s acts like Rage Against the Machine. I admit, I knew nothing of them before this show. I will be going through their musical catalogue when I get home.

Swedish House Mafia drew most of the crowd to the main stage, however, this type of electronic house music starts to sound the same to me after about three songs. Still, witnessing tens of thousands gathered to dance insanely around three guys staring at their computers is truly a postmodern phenomenon.

The best show of evening was Amon Tobin's ISAM Live, an international tour and traveling art installation that combines Tobin's dense, interpretive hip hop beats with a stunning light show. But don't take my word for it. Watch the video below. On to Saturday:

Radiohead, Bon Iver, The Shins, David Guetta, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Kaskade, Miike Snow, Jeff Mangum, Sebastian Ingrosso, Andrew Bird, Feist, Firehose, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, St. Vincent, Martin Solveig, Subfocus, Sbtrkt, Flying Lotus, Manchester Orchestra, Kasabian, AWOL Nation, Azealia Banks, Squeeze, A$AP Rocky, Buzzcocks, Kaiser Chiefs, Destroyer, The Head and the Heart, Laura Marling, Tuneyards, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Black Lips, The Big Pink, Childish Gambino, The Vaccines, Zed's Dead, Grouplove, Jacques Lu Cont, We Were Promised, Jetpacks, Gary Clark Jr., Borgore, Dragonette, We Are Augustines, Mt. Eden, Destructo, Suedehead, Keep Shelley in Athens, Pure Filth Sound

Amon Tobin 'ISAM' Live (Extended Trailer) from Ninja Tune on Vimeo.